My husband became a great cook during the pandemic. Me, not so much.

I like the food I make, but when it comes to entertaining, I let my husband take over because he has mastered the art of cooking. The difference between our cooking often comes down to one secret ingredient or spice that I hadn’t thought about.

I thought about that difference when I recently came across a startling statistic: about 80% of people who make New Year’s resolutions feel like they’ve failed within the first few months. So, what’s the “missing ingredient” that most people overlook or don’t know about that can make all the difference when it comes to behavior change?

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Drum roll please…I propose it’s your autonomic nervous system.

What does your autonomic nervous system matter?

When we understand how our autonomic nervous system (ANS) underlies everything we do, we can begin to craft strategies keeping this in mind. Specifically, we can increase cues of safety to our nervous system, so that we can move toward our goals with greater ease. 

Here’s a brief, deeper dive: Below the surface of awareness, through a process called neuroception, our brain and nervous system are constantly scanning for cues of threat/danger or for cues of safety. When there are more cues of threat, our ANS goes into protection mode. 

That makes sense, especially for our Stone Age ancestors who needed to dodge those saber tooth tigers. In a state of protection, our fight-or-flight system engages to defend us from a predator by preparing us to fight or run away (modern day translation = inner experience of stress, frustration, anxiety, fear, anger, etc.).

Or, if the threat feels overwhelming, we might go into a freeze response/playing “dead” (modern day translation = shutting down, feeling stuck, procrastinating, feeling hopeless, avoiding, staying in bed). These responses are adaptive for dealing with true threats, but not so helpful when trying to approach goals or change behaviors.

However, when we neurocept more cues of safety than threat, something different happens in our nervous system. Our social-engagement system gets turned on. From an evolutionary point of view, a nervous system grounded in cues of safety allowed our ancestors to feel safe enough to explore, invent, connect and engage in prosocial behavior with one another, be creative, and experience all manner of renewing emotions. 

In our modern lives, when our nervous system has enough cues of safety, we are in a better state to approach goals, tackle challenges, think creatively, and access a whole array of inner resources (confidence, calm, courage, self-compassion, perspective, etc.) to help us move forward toward our goals.

So how do we translate this into setting intentions that stick, and taking actions that empower us to move toward our goals?  Here are a few suggestions:

1. Turn down your stress response, turn on your “yes” response.

How we frame goals to ourselves matters. Come up with goals that feel safe enough that your nervous system can say “yes” to them. A “yes” can often be experienced in the body as a sense of more openness, a more relaxed feeling around the heart, a sense of greater ease; a “no” in the body often feels tighter, contracted, and constricted around the heart and chest, or in the stomach. Let’s look at a few examples of what someone’s goals might be:

  • I want to lose weight.
  • I want to stop yelling at my kids.
  • I want to get rid of the clutter in my house.

For many people, these kinds of goals with their focus on what you don’t want, can be read as a kind of “threat” in the nervous system. But take a look at these revised goals, focusing on what you want to say “yes” to instead:

  • I want to have vibrant health and energy and nourish myself with healthy foods.
  • I want to create a loving environment where my kids can thrive and learn from their mistakes.
  • I want to create clear and clean spaces in my house where I can feel at ease and thrive.

Notice how these statement land differently in your nervous system when you read them.

Importantly, sometimes even framing things by what we want to say yes to can feel like a “no” in the nervous system, so it’s important to “listen” carefully. If our body is reading our goals as a cue of threat, we can pay attention and reframe to make it feel more “safe” for the nervous system. For example, “I want to say yes to public speaking” may feel like a “no” in my body, but it may feel more approachable and less threatening by shifting the language in this direction: “I want to say yes to sharing my ideas that I’m passionate about so I can make a difference to others.”

2. Make a specific action plan that feels safe for your nervous system, and don’t leave it to chance.

Often when we set goals, we do so in a way that is vague (not specific) and/or we create goals that can feel daunting, both of which can be cues of threat for our nervous system and make it harder to move forward. For example:

  • I want to start exercising every day (vague and daunting).
  • I want to eat healthier (vague).
  • I want to declutter my house (daunting).
  • I want to launch this creative project (vague and daunting).

Notice too, how these goals leave things to chance (or to hope). I hope that I will just wake up tomorrow and feel like exercising. I am taking my chances that I’ll be in the mood to declutter my house starting tomorrow.

Instead, break things down into small steps that feel “safe” and manageable for you and your nervous system to approach; then come up with a specific action plan that does not leave anything to chance (the nervous system likes things that are clear and predictable).  For example:

Tomorrow, I have a 15-minute exercise video picked out and ready to go. I have blocked off time first thing in the morning and put it on my calendar. I have my exercise clothes and sneakers on the chair by my bed, ready to go. I reached out to a friend as an accountability buddy, and I’m going to text them as soon as I finish the workout, so they can cheer me on (and I’ll do the same for them).

Make sure that whatever you pick feels “safe” for your nervous system. Check in with your body and see as you picture taking this step whether you get an inner “yes I can approach this” or “nope, I’m frozen” response. If it feels too daunting, make it smaller. Decluttering my house feels overwhelming. Going through one drawer tomorrow feels manageable. 

Those small steps, when done consistently, create the momentum from which we are ready to take on more.

3. Make a plan for dealing with obstacles (think obstacle course).

When I was a kid, I used to love obstacle courses, having to climb in, out, over and through things trying to get to the finish line. It was a fun adventure, and obstacles were a built in part of this. 

In life things are rarely linear or perfect. We will for sure encounter obstacles along the way, and yet often we have an expectation that it shouldn’t be this way. Then, when we come up against an obstacle, we feel like something’s wrong, or that we’ve failed. This mindset is a big cue of threat for our nervous system and can cause us to not only get derailed, but give up. What’s the antidote for this?

First, we need to shift our mindset, to expect that we will encounter bumps and jolts and missteps along the way. We can think of these as challenges that help us reassess what is and isn’t working, and that can guide us to make tweaks that support us in moving toward what matters.

Second, we can practice cultivating an encouraging voice of self-compassion. We often think that being critical with ourselves will help us accomplish our goals. It rarely does. We likely wouldn’t berate a friend or loved one for running into a speed bump and getting derailed, yet we do this with ourselves often. When you fall short with something, talk to yourself the way you would talk with a dear friend. Be kind, encouraging, and take the long view (this blip, seen from a bigger perspective, is just part of being human and hardly needs to be the thing that stops you from moving forward again tomorrow.)

Third, we can plan to bring some discomfort along for the ride with us as part of our journey.  There is inevitably some discomfort in change. We might feel nervous about starting something new; we might have to tolerate cravings to make healthier choices; we might have to counter feelings of “I don’t feel like it” to initiate a new routine. Rather than needing to get rid of that feeling or waiting for it to go away, we can make some space for it, lovingly put it in the back seat as we step into the driver’s seat, moving toward what is important to us. That discomfort may just be your nervous system trying to protect you from what it perceives as “threat.” Thank it for trying to protect you, and let it know that you can see a bigger picture, you’ve got this!

Fourth, we can make a specific plan for working with obstacles that will likely arise. You can do this by anticipating what you know will come up, and using the obstacles that do come up as a springboard for creating strategies for yourself.  For example:

When I come up against resistance or self-doubt about continuing this project, I’m going to remind myself that this is just part of my nervous system trying to protect me. I’m going to connect in with all the reasons why this project really matters to me, and the ways I think it will make a positive difference for people. I’m going to recall some of the past projects that were challenging that I was able to complete. Then I’m going to commit to just sitting down for ten minutes today, that’s all. After ten minutes I’m going to give myself permission to re-assess if I want to continue today or not.  I’m willing to feel a bit of discomfort in order to move forward, toward what matters, at my own pace.

When we can remember this secret ingredient of paying attention to our autonomic nervous system, we can invite in greater cues of safety for our nervous system from the get-go. From here, we create the conditions in which our seeds—our dreams, our goals, our intentions can take root, grow and flourish.

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